The big debate: Hackney, a place for everyone?
“How do we continue to improve Hackney but make sure it works for everyone?”
That was the key question and focus of a thought-provoking debate on Wednesday night that took in a welter of heavyweight topics including housing, gentrification, young people and crime.
The Question Time style discussion, called Hackney: A Place for Everyone?, in City Academy, Homerton, on Wednesday night, marked the beginning of a year-long process by Hackney Council to talk and listen to thousands of residents about the way the borough is changing.
Nine key questions from residents and school children were put before the panel of experts, who all live, work or grew up in the borough, including: Hackney Mayor Jules Pipe; Dr Melissa Butcher, Birkbeck academic; Tunde Okewale award-winning barrister; Robbie de Santos, Senior Public Policy Advocate at StepChange Debt Charity; and Dr Cheryl Day, Headteacher at Clapton Girls' Academy. The debate was chaired by Dave Hill, Guardian columnist and blogger.
Ensuring people from different backgrounds are able to regularly “hang out” together in the same spaces is key to creating a healthy community according to the panellists.
Mr de Santos said a mix of businesses on the high streets was crucial. “Chain restaurants, pizzerias, Turkish restaurants - they all tend to attract a broad range in Hackney,” he told the audience of nearly 200. “We need to resist businesses and restaurants that are polarising.”
“In Broadway Market there is still the mix of the greasy spoon and the upmarket café but that’s changing,” added Dr Butcher. “If the retail changes, that instantly changes who accesses that space.”
Dr Day urged communities to learn from the borough’s schoolchildren who “celebrate in their diversity,” adding, “it’s about having lots for everybody.”
However, Hackney is already becoming increasingly divided with a rapidly “missing middle”, according to Mr de Santos - those not rich enough to afford private housing but who do not qualify for social housing.
He backed shared-ownership schemes – “for city-makers, like teachers”, adding he would like to see a 50/50 split of social and intermediary house-building by the Council.
Ending the right to buy council homes, significantly reducing the cost of what is misleadingly termed “affordable” housing, and preventing other councils from parachuting their homeless into Hackney properties formed Mayor’s Pipe’s wish list on how Hackney’s housing issues could be more easily tackled.
The ongoing changes in the borough have seen those from lower incomes feeling “displaced”, “marginalised”, and “alienated”, according to various members of the panel.
“There’s a growing sense of unease, people can’t see futures for themselves here,” a member of the audience told the panellists.
Mr Hill said in the weeks following the 2011 riots, a recurring theme from some residents was “this borough is getting posher but it’s not done us any good”.
“There is a link between security, crime and gentrification,” Dr Butcher said. “People would talk about feeling safer, because, in their words, there were more young white professionals but the presence of that demographic is making them feel less secure in other ways, in terms of their place in Hackney and displacement.”
Tensions arise because of “misperceptions”, she added, urging the Council and the community to think about ways of breaking down barriers.
Mayor Pipe said the Council was continuously searching for ways to bring people together.
“Events like Play Streets get people out and create shared spaces,” said Mayor Pipe, adding: “It’s about keeping our schools places where people from across our diverse community want to send their children.”
“I think the crucial point is dialogue,” said Mr Okewale, “and giving people an opportunity to express themselves and make them feel they can be a part of a changing community.”
Hackney’s ongoing transformation has gone hand-in-hand with a fall in crime, with the borough seeing 11,000 fewer crimes now than a decade ago, including a significant drop in gang violence.
The benefits are being enjoyed by most, however, the borough remains a dangerous place for some young men, said Mayor Pipe.
The most important thing for me is that cohort of young men for whom this borough is not a safe place. It’s young black men who are most likely to be the victim of crime and we should concentrate on them as much as the perpetrators.
This issue, said Mr Okewale, extended beyond Hackney: “There’s a problem with young men unable to communicate effectively and resorting to violence,” he said, with the riots a manifestation of discontent nationally.
“We should listen to young people a bit more,” Year 12 City Academy student Kenni Adegbola told the panel. “They do have a voice and a lot of us have something good to say.”
And what for the future generations of the borough? Helping young people get a foot in the door of the borough’s boom industries, particularly the creative businesses clustered around Tech City, is key, the panel agreed.
“School is a very important part of this,” said Dr Butcher, “arranging face-to-face meetings between entrepreneurs and young people. Developing channels to connect with Tech City.”
But the gap between the way people dress, what they talk about and their cultural references can be a “stumbling block”, she said. “It’s not just about training young people but training some of the people in Tech City to be more open.”
“It’s absolutely the place of the Council to bring together these businesses and young people,” added Mayor Pipe. “We’re instilling from primary age that these jobs are as much for you as they are than anyone else, even more so, because it’s in your borough.